Throughout his leadership of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn has disappointed some of his most ardent admirers by his refusal to hang tough. Yes, he has played many situations with canniness and subtlety, but too often he has been soft, appeased and conciliated where it is either unnecessary, or worse, entirely counter productive.
Too often he vows to “listen” to the problems of dissenting New Labour MPs, instead of asserting his authority. Too many times he has promised to “tackle antisemitism”, instead of bluntly telling everyone – “Labour is NOT antisemitic, this is a smear campaign”.
Corbyn should know by now that he can’t win by playing their game by their rules. You can’t appease people who do not want to be appeased. You can’t clean up a smear campaign, and trying just spreads the smears further.
However, none of his previous mistakes compare to the kamikaze of backing a people’s vote on Brexit, a huge mistake that undermines the Labour movement from multiple angles.
Firstly, there is “The Independent Group” to consider – this is, essentially, a cave to their demands. Corbyn has now shown he will bow to threats of defection and the loss of eight entirely forgettable MPs. More than bowing to the pressure, he has handed them legitimacy. Before today The Independent Group was a joke – their launch fell flat, they are all variously personally compromised, they have no policies, no ideology, no leader and they are even registered as business, NOT a political party.
They should have been ignored, mocked even, but not taken seriously. This decision hands them power. A dreadful mistake, that breathes life into a New Labour movement that has been husking out its last moments ever since Corbyn was elected leader.
Yes, it’s true this is technically no change from the Labour Conference position – but this announcement has meaning. Whatever the truth of the situation – the media can now present TIG as a small group who stood for their principles, and in doing so bent “Corbyn’s Personality Cult” back to the path of reason. Paying off a blackmailer is never the solution. They always want more.
Secondly, there is the Lexit vote. Brexit is not a purely left-vs-right issue. The media have tried to present Brexit as a battle between lovely cuddly progressives who want to remain and awful mean racists who want to leave. Obviously it was never that simple. There is a very real portion of the left who believe the EU is anti-democratic. It’s important to remember that being anti-EU was always a traditionally socialist position. A second referendum is a betrayal of those people, and weakening of Corbyn’s socialist base. There are marginal seats, especially in the poorer areas of the county, who will swing against Labour if it is perceived they are campaigning to stop Brexit.
Third, a teetering and hilariously incompetent Tory government has been shown a crack of hope here. They can now pitch themselves as “The British Party”, standing up for the nation against the “European” Labour party who want to “sell us out to Brussels”. You can be sure that’s how the Mail, Times and Sun will sell it. May can leverage this into a “khaki election” and win on a landslide of national pride.
Finally, and most importantly, there is the question of undermining democracy itself. It has never, ever, before been suggested we simply re-do a vote because we don’t like the outcome. Brexit has been sold as a vote “built on misinformation”, we have been told that “the realities have changed”, and that new voters have come of age, whilst old voters died. We have even been told Brexit needs to be undone because it is a threat to our “national security”.
A second referendum lends credence to these arguments – it sets the precedent. Demographic changes, dishonesty, national security. These lines of argument are vague and unquantifiable enough that they could then be cited as reason to delegitimize literally ANY vote. Up to, and including, a general election….that Jeremy Corbyn won.
“Labour lied about privatising water”….re-do the vote.
“Millions of old lefties have died since the last election”….re-do the vote.
“Corbyn’s campaign manager is a security threat”….re-do the vote.
The EU has form when it comes to replaying referenda until they get the result they want, but it is new in the British experience.
The actual form the vote is still undecided. Will it be a choice between two deals? Will there be a “remain option”? But this is largely immaterial. If the option is “this deal or no deal” and “no deal” has been ruled out, then a no vote on the deal is a vote to remain. The threat of no deal has been hammered home to us in a thousand different ways. A vote which “forces” no deal will be seen as a threat to the nation and discarded. Moving the deadline back is already being mooted, they can do this as many times as they want until people forget we were ever meant to leave, or will accept a deal which is just remain renamed.
The problem is not Brexit. The establishment has a million different tools for deconstructing, preventing, obfuscating and totally halting Brexit. The problem, from the establishment POV, is Jeremy Corbyn. They can’t stop Brexit until Corbyn has been removed…and Corbyn has now handed them the power to do this.
It’s important to hold all these issues in their proper perspective – this is about Corbyn, not Brexit. Corbyn is the threat, not Brexit.
In or out of the EU, a Tory or New Labour government would still push austerity for the poor and tax breaks for the rich.
In or out of the EU, a Tory or New Labour government will pour money into the arms industry whilst neglecting public services.
In or out of the EU, a Tory or New Labour government will still support American interventions in Syria, Venezuela and around the globe.
And, in or out of the EU, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party would have reversed all of those policies.
That’s why MPs from every party have been actively trying to weaken his leadership, remove him from office and destroy public faith in his ideas. More than that, Corbyn is the only party leader who might actually deliver a proper departure from the EU (he would need to do so, in some ways, to enact his manifesto). Corbyn, and his fellow socialists, undermine the idea of Brexit as the cause of the racist rich.
If anyone but Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the Labour party one of two things would have already happened:
- The 2D Blairite elected in Corbyn’s place would have “united for common purpose” with the Tories to deliver Brexit in name only, and we’d have left the EU under a deal that was essentially the exact status quo under a rebranded status quo. Austerity – check. Free movement – check. Preparing to contribute to the EU army. Some small concessions, perhaps. Even less democratic representation.
- Brexit would have been called off entirely and we’d all have been “saved from an act of national self-harm”.
Brexit is NOT the biggest political crisis in Britain’s history. It isn’t even the most important political question facing us this decade, year or month. Austerity is. Growing poverty. Defunded public services. Privatisation of our transport, water and eventually our NHS. These are real crises.
The most important question we need to ask is – what is better for ordinary people, a Conservative government or a Labour government?
Do we want to be a neo-liberal state slowly crushing the poorest and most vulnerable beneath austerity’s boot heel? Or do we want to change, and try take care of each other?
For all the criticism of Jeremy Corbyn from the left, he has been steadfast in trying to secure a socialist government for this country, and undo the evil of the austerity. In backing the “people’s vote”, I fear he has dashed any chance of that happening.